I confess that the whole debate about hate speech troubles me a great deal. In no way do I want to promote angry, bitter or vindictive speech. I think some forms of speech are dangerous in some, narrowly defined, contexts. But the definition of hate speech is itself a very slippery slope at best. Celebrated cases in Canada have already brought down government opposition against Christians who oppose homosexual practice. Now we have a powerful case of the same problem developing in Illinois, my own state.
The University of Illinois recently fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a single student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech. What did the faculty member actually do to bring his firing? He told a class that he agreed with the official Catholic Church position that homosexual sex is immoral. The professor, Ken Howell, taught two courses: Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. Howell says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after he sent an email explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students while they prepared for an exam. In the offensive email Howell wrote: “Natural Moral Law says that morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only for people who are complementary, not the same.”
An unidentified student sent an email to the head of the religion department head, Dr. Robert McKim, on May 13, calling Howell’s email “hate speech.” The student was not even in Howell’s class but said he was a friend of an offended student. The writer said of the email said that his friend wanted to remain anonymous. The student wrote to the department head: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.” (Do these people, including this department head, have any earthly idea of what the Catholic Church teaches about moral and natural law, or could this really be a case of colossal ignorance? The facts seem to say that more was at stake than simple ignorance.)
Howell told a Champaign (IL) newspaper that he never tells his students what they must believe. The Academic Staff Handbook actually says that faculty “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in developing and discussing according to their areas of competence the subjects that they are assigned.” But Ann Mester, an associate dean at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said Howell’s email justified his firing according to the report distributed by the AP. The incredible incompetence of this response is startling to me.
Howell has taught at Illinois for nine years. He was recognized by his department in 2008 and 2009 for being rated as an excellent teacher by his students. The problem, at least based upon what one can determine from the AP report, is that the chairman of the religion department doesn’t care for Howell. Howell says they have very deep disagreements over “the nature of what should be taught.” As an adjunct professor myself I can tell you that such a teacher has little or no ability to contest such disagreements since there is no tenure involved and an adjunct is in simple employment on contract. In Howell’s case the remarkable thing that followed his dismissal troubles me even more. He was also the director of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center’s Institute of Catholic Thought and as a result of this hate speech decision by the university he lost his teaching job there. The decision by the Newman Center was made based upon the university decision, at least according to Patricia Gibson, an attorney and chancellor for the Diocese of Peoria. The well-known Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal defense group, is now considering helping Howell. If what we know so far is even remotely true I think they will have a great case to present to a judge.
This case is remarkable for several reasons. When you read the account that has been made public so far there is a simple desire to hear a much better case made by the university. I will follow this story with deep interest, especially since I am an adjunct professor at a private college. I will watch it with even more interest because I think this whole category of hate speech is a serious danger to our right to free speech in a country that has treasured this freedom for more than two centuries. I am not inclined to push the conservative “fear button” about such debates but this case is deeply troubling. True liberals and true conservatives should stand as one on this type of case. I fear, however, that a small minority will yet be allowed to stifle our free speech unless Americans who know and love our right to speech intervene and make their wishes known. A very small minority is promoting this debate and it would be nice to hear people of many ideological persuasions speak up to protect speech that they might not like. To express the view that homosexual practice is morally wrong, based on both biblical revelation and natural law tradition, is my right. Take this away from Professor Howell and who gets nailed next? This is a really big question and I am listening to all sides very carefully.